After enduring months of corruption scandals, FIFA, the governing body of global soccer, is under intense pressure to reform. While popular interest swirls around the February FIFA presidential election, a more important vote will take place on the same day over institutional reform. The organization’s reform committee is meeting in Switzerland this week to decide on the package of reforms that will be voted on in February.
As corporate sponsors and law enforcement authorities watch closely, there is one obvious change that could improve global soccer on multiple fronts: more women.
When FIFA’s Congress gathers in February, less than 1 percent of the voters will be female. National soccer boards have just 8 percent women. Players? An estimated 10 percent female. Coaches? Only 7 percent. How about the reform committee itself? One solitary woman on a committee of 13.
As one of the few women in the top leadership of FIFA, I often hear from disenfranchised women seeking help. I hear of canceled competitions, exclusion from decision-making and scornful disrespect. It is a consistent message across the global divides of geography, politics and wealth.
As a former player for the Australian national team, I understand the struggles. Twenty-five years ago we paid our own airfares. We once trained in a hotel parking lot, and sewed the national crest onto our own tracksuits. Today, many national teams are similarly underfunded, while only a handful of elite players can make a living.
How could half the population be so widely excluded from the world’s most popular sport? The record audience for the FIFA Women’s World Cup this year will know that it’s not because women and girls can’t or don’t want to play.
It’s because soccer’s own institutions have, through bans and systemic neglect, actively practiced prejudice over many decades. Reflecting societies in which women’s right to vote, own property and hold a job after marriage are relatively recent — and still not universal — soccer’s halls of power have institutionalized a culture of gender discrimination.
FIFA needs concerted measures — from the top down and the bottom up — to bring fairness to the game. It can do this by requiring two things: gender balance in decision-making, so that better decisions flow down at every level, and a “fair share” investment of soccer’s resources in the women’s game, to transform participation from the bottom up.
Targets and quotas are necessary. In FIFA, a statute change in 2012 required one woman (out of 25 people) on the executive committee. I hold a leadership position because two more women were added — but we were given limited tenure and no voting rights.
According to boardroom diversity advocates, once 30 percent gender balance is reached, a culture shifts. The women then cease to be regarded as a special interest group. A FIFA quota system should ensure 30 percent females in decision-making roles.
In parallel with quotas, fair resources for women’s soccer would immediately begin to transform the game from the grass roots up.
Less than half of FIFA’s national federations have girls soccer programs. Those that do exist give a girl less access to facilities, less support, and poorer development pathways than her brother. She will play in competitions with less investment, minimal promotion, and consequently fewer fans than the all-important male versions. Media coverage will amplify this skew, battling age-old preconceptions and making her all but invisible in the mainstream. Administrators preoccupied with the men’s game will struggle to meet her needs.
America’s Title IX regulation, which explicitly bans gender discrimination in government-funded education activities, showcases the success that could follow true reform. Participation in women’s sports soared after its introduction of Title IX in 1972: Soccer is now played in 92 percent of NCAA American colleges. And the United States and Canada have the highest participation rates in the world per head of population — six times that of Europe, and a staggering 75 times that of soccer-crazy South America. The United States has won 4 out of 5 Olympic gold medals, and as many FIFA Women’s World Cups as all of Europe combined.
By simply ensuring a fair go, America overtook soccer’s most established powers.
How would this work on a global scale? It’s a question of political will.
FIFA’s reforms should require that all governing bodies — itself, its continental confederations, national federations and their member clubs — fund women’s soccer without discrimination, in fair financial proportion to female participation and potential.
Then the game will be infused with a gender-balance from the bottom up. That cultural shift would transform soccer into the world’s leading women’s sport, capturing new fans, new markets, and the imagination of millions of little girls.
The benefits would go far beyond sport. The world’s most popular game influences society’s norms like no other. If soccer is a haven of sexism, racism and corruption, it drags our world backward. If it becomes a showcase of inclusion, integrity and respect, it will create an immeasurable social and economic dividend of equity, tolerance and progress.
Moya Dodd, a partner at the law firm Gilbert & Tobin, is a member FIFA’s executive committee and chairwoman of FIFA’s Women’s Football Task Force.